The Victorian Occultist Accused of Killing Men With Her Mind

Pioneering feminist and animal rights campaigner Anna Kingsford was one of the 19th century's most remarkable women. Then she was charged with using black magic to murder two vivisectionists.

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Jan 2 2018, 3:28pm

Animal rights campaigner Anna Kingsford and Claude Bernard, whom she allegedly killed with a "spiritual thunderbolt". Photos via Wikimedia Commons

“Claude Bernard dead! Claude Bernard dead!” Anna Kingsford hysterically cried one February afternoon as she arrived to a notice on the gate of the Paris École de Médecine informing of the funeral of the great physiologist. Overcome by emotion, she asked to be seated as she recounted the events of the previous December, 1877. Using her knowledge of the occult, Kingsford said, she had summoned a “spiritual thunderbolt” to strike him down.

At the time, Kingsford was a few years into her medical degree at the prestigious school. Defiantly pursuing her ambitions despite Victorian hostility toward women in medicine, she was on course to become one of the first British women to qualify as a doctor. The avowed vegetarian didn't just want to become a practitioner; she also wished to gain credibility for her crusade against vivisection, a practice which tortured helpless animals in the name of scientific progression.

Kingsford threw herself right into the lion's den. The École championed the practice and Professor Claude Bernard was Europe's primary proponent of vivisection at the time. (He was once served a divorce by his wife after she returned home one day to find he had vivisected their pet dog.) In an article for The Heretic, Kingsford described her anguish when she learned that the horrific screams coming from an École lab were the dying cries of dogs as they were dissected alive. “With tears of agony,” she wrote, “I prayed for strength and courage to labour effectually for the abolition of so vile a wrong, and to do at least what one heart and one voice might to root this curse of torture from the land.”


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Late that December, worked up into a “frenzy of righteous indignation”, Kingsford used some kind of psychic power to smite Bernard. Later, in November 1886, she would do the same to the physiologist Paul Bert—or so Edward Maitland, her long-time collaborator in occultism and antivivisectionism, claimed.

The account comes from Anna Kingsford, Her Life, Letters, Diary and Work, his 1896 biography of Kingsford, and her portrayal as a vengeful occultist set back the true appreciation of her as one of the pioneering Victorian spiritualists and animal rights campaigners for over a century. Instead of being recognized for her countless achievements—lecturing widely on vegetarianism and antivivisectionism, writing major esoteric books, novels and newspaper columns, editing her own feminist magazine, and campaigning for women's rights—she is now commonly reduced to a passing mention on black magic.

But so great was her influence that Mahatma Gandhi was selling her mystical books in South Africa as well as reading “with benefit and gratitude” her vegetarianism treatise The Perfect Way in Diet; Aleister Crowley, the notorious magician, admitted that “she did more in the religious world than any other person had done for generations”, and renowned tarot author and teacher Mary Greer called her the mother of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the most famous esoteric organization of the Victorian era. But did Kingsford really murder two French vivisectors?

According to Alan Pert, her 2007 biographer, Maitland's biography is “full of errors” and omits many important personal details. Anna's close friend Florence Miller said of the work, “it is about Maitland himself, rather than his professed subject. Page after page is given to the vaporings and spiritualistic media, about his soul, and his importance in the Universe!” Theosophy in Australia's 1896 review called it “one of the most bewildering and weirdest books published this year,” adding that “as an Avenging Angel killing vivisectionists by the power of will alone, she appears in a new character to most of us.”

Oh, and there's the rather suspicious fact that Maitland burned all of the papers, manuscripts, diaries, and letters Kingsford bequeathed to him when he finished writing the biography, making it impossible for anyone to cross-reference any of its quotations or accounts.

Among many other implausible and inconsistent claims, Maitland also said that Kingsford told him she used to go fox hunting and found a “savage joy” in seeing the dogs tear the fox to pieces. Her own words in her book Health, Beauty and the Toilet contradict this: “I am not an advocate of hunting for women… The spectacle of the 'death' even when [the fox] is concerned, ought not to inspire joy in the hearts of English girls, and when poor “pussy” is the victim the aspect of the thing is, to my mind at least, wholly revolting and contemptible.”

What would motivate Maitland to betray Kingsford and deliberately tarnish her legacy? A power struggle, obviously. According to Alan Pert, “Anna was Maitland's 'ideal woman' in all but one respect: he could not dominate her as he desired.” Writing about their first encounter, Maitland provides a lengthy description of her extraordinary Mary Magdalen-like beauty: “Tall, slender and graceful in form, fair and exquisite in complexion, the hair long and golden...” Coincidentally, the leading female character in his novels follows the same description, except she is always submissive and often sadistically mistreated by the man. In Maitland's book England and Islam, he wrote, “The ideal woman brings herself to her male affinity as a sheet of blankest paper for him to write upon as he pleases.”

Kingsford also overshadowed Maitland with her success. Not only did she lead the charge for a new theosophical movement, but she is honored in the histories of vegetarianism and animal rights for her knowledge and tireless dedication to these causes. By means of the biography, he could settle the score once and for all. Not only would he taint her character, but devalue her work by giving readers the impression she would be lost without his guidance, “destined to disaster and wreck as a ship set adrift on the ocean without rudder, compass, or helmsman.” He even went as far as to profess that after her death, Kingsford’s spirit came through to tell him she was wrong about a previous disagreement.

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Besides, such a bloodthirsty attitude was totally against her character and beliefs. Harming anyone, let alone murdering someone, was completely contradictory to Kingsford's principles. In her lecture Violationism Or Sorcery In Science, she said: “to be an adept in [magic], it is indispensable to be pure of heart, clear of conscience, and just in action.”

What would Claude Bernard and Paul Bert tell us if they dropped by to the séance room? They sure as hell weren't the victims of psychic assassination. Bert died of dysentery in Hanoi while Bernard had been in ill health for some 17 years, with a disease of the very organs he spent his whole career studying, the pancreas and the liver, ironically leading to his slow demise. Karma's a bitch.